Thursday, March 19, 2009

Of war and of sowing

The diaries of Harold Nicolson, one of the most interesting and readable of 20th century diarists, are being republished today in their original three volumes by Faber Finds. Following on from Chamberlain’s ‘birthday’ article yesterday, I’ve chosen one extract from Nicolson’s diary dating to almost exactly 60 years ago about the then prime minister, and another just a few days later which shows Nicolson as happy (well not quite on this occasion) in his garden at Sissinghurst as he was in Parliament.

Wikipedia and The Diary Junction have short online biographies with basic details of Nicolson’s life, but there are also several published biographies, starting with Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (1973), James Lees-Milne’s two-volume Harold Nicolson: A Biography (early 1980s), and Norman Rose’s Harold Nicolson (2005).

Nicolson was Born in Tehran (Persia at the time) in 1886 and worked in the British diplomatic service before becoming an MP in 1935. He married the writer Victoria Sackville-West in 1913, and together they created the famous garden at Sissinghurst, Kent. While not an especially remarkable politician in his own right, Nicolson’s skills lay in his talents as an observer, and as a journalist and writer. He wrote many biographical books, but is probably best remembered for his diaries. He is also well remembered for the relationship with his wife, which was both very close yet also open, in the sense that each partner allowed the other to have affairs, including with same-sex lovers.

Harold’s son Nigel Nicolson edited and published three volumes of the diaries (and letters) in the last years of his father’s life (Harold died in 1968). Since then there have been many reprints and reissues. Most recently, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (now part of Orion, but originally founded by Nigel Nicolson and George Weidenfeld in the 1940s) published, in 2004, a one volume edition - The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1963. This was, like the earlier versions, edited by Nigel but included a different set of entries.

Today (19 March) though, the original three volume set is being reissued by Faber Finds: Harold Nicolson - Diaries and Letters Vol. 1 (1930-1939); Harold Nicolson - Diaries and Letters Vol. 2 (1939-1945); Harold Nicolson - Diaries and Letters Vol. 3 (1945–-1962).

In advertising the reissued books, Faber Finds quotes a number of past reviews. Sir Kenneth Clark, for example, said the diaries provide ‘not only a brilliant picture of English society in the 1930s, but a touching self-portrait of a highly intelligent and civilized man driven by conscience and curiosity to enter politics’. The late Cyril Connolly said, ‘One is hardly able to put it down for meals . . . It is very artfully edited for, besides the diary proper, there are many letters to Sir Harold’s wife, Vita Sackville-West, and not a few from her to him. But this remains solidly and brilliantly Sir Harold’s own book.’ And Michael Foot: ‘One stops to marvel at the achievement. Honesty, decency, modesty magnanimity are stamped on every page, as evident as the wit. These are not the normal virtues of successful diarists or would-be politicians, but Harold Nicolson possesses them all.’

Here are two short extracts (taken from The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1963), both from 60 years ago. I’ve picked the first one because it’s about Chamberlain, the subject of yesterday’s article, and the second because it’s only a few days later but gives a charming (if somewhat maudlin) and characteristic impression of Nicolson at Sissinghurst.

31 March 1939
‘Down to the House. The PM says he will make a statement shortly before three. The general feeling is that he will announce that if Poland and Rumania are attacked we shall go to war. There is some uneasiness about in the corridors. People fear lest Chamberlain may not stay put. Chamberlain arrives looking gaunt and ill. The skin above his high cheek bones is parchment yellow. He drops wearily into his place. . . He begins by saying that we believe in negotiation and do not trust in rumours. He then gets to the centre of his statement, namely that if Poland is attacked we shall declare war. That is greeted with cheers from every side. He reads his statement very slowly with a bent grey head. It is most impressive.’

9 April 1939
‘In the afternoon Viti and I plant annuals. We sow them in the cottage garden and then in the border and then in the orchard. We rake the soil smooth. And, as we rake we are both thinking, ‘What will have happened to the world when these seeds germinate?’ It is warm and still. We should have been so happy were it not for the thought which aches at our hearts as if some very dear person was dying in the upstairs room. We discuss whether we might be defeated if war comes. And if defeated, surely surrender [suicide] in advance would be better? We ourselves don’t think of money or privilege or pleasure. We are thinking only of that vast wastage of suffering which must surely come. All because of the insane ambitions of one fanatic, and of the vicious theory which he has imposed on his people.’

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

Three volumes! How exciting!

And he's apparently one of the greatest political diarists of our time (all right, the past few generations).

Definitely worth reading. He saw things that people with common sense could see, without too much ideological cloud/shadow.